Most Popular Names: How “The List” Was Born

We’re honored to have Michael Shackleford, the inventor of the Social Security baby name popularity list, as today’s nameberry guest blogger.  Shackleford played a pivotal role in the history of American baby naming by constructing the first national count of the Top 1000 names.  Shackleford, who can now be found at the Wizard of Odds, talks about the hows and whys behind his ground-breaking work.

jose5The most frequent question I get about my baby name popularity lists is why I started making them.  To give some context to why, my name is Michael, and I was born in 1965.  At that time, and for every year from 1961 to 1998, Michael was the most popular boys name in the United States.  When I was in elementary school, there were always one or two other Michaels in the same class.  When the teacher called on “Michael,” we all had to ask, “Which one?”  At my first job, in a fast food place at Knott’s Berry Farm, there was a big board with everybody’s name and daily cash register errors.  When I was hired, there was already a Mike Smiley on the list.  So I had to become Mike Sh.  After that, everybody would whisper, “We better be quiet, Mike Shhhhh is here.”  To this day, every time somebody calls out “Mike” in public, I have to turn around and investigate.  Usually, I’m not the intended recipient and end up looking like I came in second place in a popularity contest, when the other Michael is warmly identified.  Over the years it has become very annoying.

In 1992, I took a job with the Office of the Actuary at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore.  My main duty was to estimate the effect to the trust funds given a hypothetical change in Social Security law.  I used samplings of Social Security records, calculating the monthly payment under the current law and the proposed changes, took the difference, and adjusted for the sample size.  I had lots of interesting data at my fingertips to make such calculations.  One of the more interesting files was a 1% sampling of Social Security card applications.

Five years later, in 1997, my wife was expecting our first child.  Naturally, after my negative experiences as one of many Michaels, I was not about to give my child a popular name, but I no longer had any idea what the popular names were.  Keeping up to date was not easy at the time, especially for girl names, which go up and down in popularity much faster than boy names.  It was only my intent to stay out of the top 25 or so.  Many people incorrectly assume I take the extreme position of advocating a name nobody has heard of.  No, a normal name is fine with me, just as it is not too trendy or conformist.

To determine what the most popular names were at the time, I wrote a simple program to sort the Social Security card data first by year of birth, then by gender, and then by first name.  It takes a while to go through a tape of millions of records, but after about an hour the results came in.  What I got back was a huge document of first name popularity lists dating back to the 1880’s.  I believe my eyes at that moment were the first to ever see an accurate nationwide sampling of given names.

It was too good to keep to myself; I thought the whole country would want to see this.  Conveniently, this was the time the Internet was becoming popular.  I already knew HTML pretty well and had a now-defunct home page.  So, I put up some simple popularity lists and called it “Mike’s Baby Name Page.”  Through no effort on my part, the page became popular, and newspapers and magazines often quoted me.  On January 8, 1999, I was very proud when my name was mentioned in a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Jose Moves Into Top Spot in Name Game,” about my discovery that the most popular name for boys born in California in 1998 was Jose. Peter Jennings also mentioned it that evening on the news.

To make the whole project look more legitimate, it was decided I should take down my shoddy baby name page, write up the results in an official “Actuarial Note,” and post it on the SSA web site.  This I did.  Normally, Actuarial Notes are pretty obscure and don’t get much attention.  However, I was told that mine was in the top ten most requested pages at the SSA domain.  To accommodate the many requests, I made updates annually, as new data came in.

In 2000, I left government work to set out in the field of casino game analysis and consulting.  The hardest part was leaving the baby names behind.  I felt it was an enormous public service, but nobody seemed interested in taking it over.  Coincidentally, it was another Michael who reluctantly agreed to take over, after much begging on my part.

Thankfully, the people with the SSA web site see that the public loves the baby name lists.  They have done a great job automating the lists, making it easy to search on a specific year or name.  It is really quite easy to cull the lists, but presenting them in a user-friendly manner is another matter.  Every year on Mother’s Day, the SSA web site is updated with the most popular names of the previous year.

Now it is 2009, and the only times I”ve thought much about baby names in recent years were when our second and third children were born in 2002 and 2006.  My own name has become an asterisk in the history of the study of baby names.  Once in a while a reporter will find me and ask me a few questions about it.  I always inquire about the names of my kids’ friends and classmates, to give a human face to the process of choosing a name.  Sometimes I wonder how many children’s names I have affected since 1997.  Whatever the answer, I’m proud of what I started, and I appreciate Pamela Redmond Satran asking me to write about it for nameberry.  Pamela has written several books on baby names, and has always kindly acknowledged my place in baby name history.  Thanks Pamela for remembering me.

Michael Shackleford has a degree in math/economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, class of 1988. In 1995 he completed his last actuary exam and has been an Associate of the Society of Actuaries ever since. From 1992 to 2000 he was employed by the Social Security Administration in the Office of the Chief Actuary, largely doing short-term cost estimates on congressional legislation. In 2000 Michael turned his attention to the field of gambling where he currently works as a gaming mathematician and writer. He runs a web site on gambling, Wizard of Odds,, and serves as a consultant largely for new game developers. In addition he is the author of the book Gambling 102. Currently Michael resides in Las Vegas with his wife and three children.

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24 Responses to “Most Popular Names: How “The List” Was Born”

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Jill Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 1:12 am

Wow! That was fascinating, Mike! I sincerely thank you for inventing the program that launched the popularity rankings.

I check the Social Security name lists frequently, and can’t imagine not having those popularity lists at my fingertips.

Best wishes to you!

peach Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 1:51 am

The origin of the SSA lists explained at last. Great posting! I refer to them frequently and enjoy them also. Thank you so much!

susan Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 1:58 am

You are my hero! I love looking at the SSA lists. Love the individual states lists, too! Michael is a very popular name, but I love it.

Charlotte Vera Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 2:12 am

Fantastic article! I can’t believe it took that long to come up with the idea that you actualised. Thank you so much for a great service done to parents and name-lovers everywhere!

Nephele Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 3:13 am

Michael, you have been sorely missed since you left your position at the SSA — although I wish you continued success in your personal ventures!

Not meaning to complain about the SSA, but I have been unable to understand why your successor is unable to produce an annual list of top SSA names longer than 1,000? I have even filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the longer lists on behalf of the patrons at my public library (lists that I used to receive with no problem up to the year 2001, a year after you left.) In response, I received an excuse that the “program” doesn’t generate names beyond the top 1, 000 and that records beyond the top 1,000 don’t “exist.” This doesn’t quite sound right to me. Does it sound quite right to you?

Anyway, many, many thanks for the work you did when you were still with the SSA. The name of Michael Shackleford is legendary among names enthusiasts!

Wie die amerikanische Vornamenstatistik entstanden ist Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 4:55 am

[…] Deutschlands Vornameninteressierte blicken ja immer etwas neidisch über den Atlantik, denn in den USA gibt es wesentlich detailliertere Vornamenstatistiken als bei uns. Der “Erfinder” der amerikanischen Vornamenhitlisten, Michael Shackleford, berichtet im Blog Nameberry, wie diese Statistiken entstanden sind. […]

redriding Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 5:06 am

Freedom of Information Act, eh? Great idea Nephele, I will try this one out on the dozy people in the Office of National Statistics. I have been bombarding them with emails since January.
I am always so impressed with the US version, and thank you Mike for that interesting blog.

phaedra Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 7:38 am

Wow, this was fascinating. I had no idea that name rankings were unavailable before 1997! Thanks Michael.

Nephele Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 10:08 am

Ailsa, Your nation has Freedom of Information Act legislation, too (I believe that you got yours sometime after we got ours), so go for it.

(Michael, even though it was hard to leave behind your names project, I’ll bet you’re glad to be working for yourself these days!)

— Nephele

Patricia Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 10:50 am

Mike, thanks for starting the SSA baby name list and for sharing the story of how that came about. As a parent of nine children born/adopted during the late ’60s and ’70s (with a Michael and Jennifer among them 🙂 ), I think today’s parents are very fortunate to have the SSA data available. Not only can they find out which names are the very most popular, but they can see how a particular name is faring — leaping up the chart, staying about the same, or declining. SSA charts were looked at when most of my 16 grandchildren were named, not that our family is all that concerned about popular names (no Jacob, but we do have an Emma, born ahead of the ‘rush,’ back in 1989).

Expectant parents and name enthusiasts are so fortunate you were able to get someone to follow up with your baby name lists when you left SSA. I appreciate your seeing that someone carried on with compiling and publishing the lists. Let’s hope the list is now an established SSA service and will continue forever!

JenMaselli Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 11:08 am

I have to ditto everyone commenting ahead of me and say thank you, Michael! You’ve saved lots of children from becoming lost in a sea of same names, like we Michaels and Jennifers did. Great post and a fascinating look at the backstory behind the SSA list. Thanks again!

erzulie33 Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 11:11 am

Thank you for creating this list, but the burning question on my mind is:

What did you end up naming YOUR children?! 🙂 I’m sure other name geeks like me may be curious, too.

JNE Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 11:17 am

Fascinating! It’s just a wonder, sometimes, that there is so much data collected and unused; it takes an extremely insightful and interested person to unlock that information for the rest of us – thanks so much Mike!

linda Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 12:22 pm

This takes me back to the days before Mike started doing his fabulous work and we had to take a do-it-yourself approach by contacting the Health Departments of all 50 states, begging them for their lists–not always successfully–and then trying our best to tabulate them into a national one.
No wonder Mike Shackleford became our patron saint!

Catherine Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Thank you so much Mike! I’ve been loving the lists and had no idea that nobody before you had the same idea!

Nephele Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Linda, I remember those days of contacting individual Health Departments, too! We used to get reference requests at my library all the time, for top baby names lists. I remember that, back in the late 80s and early 90s, New York State’s Health Dept. didn’t have the lists available in electronic format, and we had to request the hard copies every year. Those were HUGE bundles of papers!

For all my griping about the SSA not extending their lists beyond the Top 1,000 names, I’m still immensely grateful that they’ve continued Michael Shackleford’s concept and that they publish those Top 1,000 lists online every year.

But I’m greedy, and I still would like to get more than the annual Top 1,000. Hahaha!

Michael Shackleford Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Thank you for all the kind words. Regarding lists longer than 1000, there are conflicting interests between the public benefit of the lists, and the privacy of the children with unique names. As I recall, we struck a balance in which a name had to occur at least ten times for inclusion. If you go further than 1000, you run the risk of getting below 10 kids per name. As a practical matter, I don’t think invoking the FOIA is going to help.

Nephele Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Thanks for your response, Michael! I understand the privacy issue, and I used to get those lists down to an occurrence of 10 kids per name. But these lists would still be much bigger than the Top 1,000. In fact, the list for girls names for the year 2000, down to an occurrence of 10 kids per name, is close to a Top 10,000 list. I think I could be happy with an annual Top 10,000 list published online by the SSA. 🙂

redridiing Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Oh imagine the bliss of an annual Top 10,000 list for all the countries in the world!! Since time began!

linda Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 7:40 pm

We’ve invited Mike Sh’s successor at the SSA to write a guest blog and he’s accepted, so looking forward to hearing his thoughts.

Nephele Says:

September 22nd, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Linda, would that be Michael Clingman? I’d like to hear what he might have to say about the SSA someday possibly expanding that annual list of theirs. 🙂 Maybe if we all ask him nicely…? (Well, I can hope, can’t I? Hahaha!)

http://legitbabenames.wordpress.com/ Says:

September 23rd, 2009 at 4:41 pm

This was really fascinating.

Christina Fonseca Says:

September 23rd, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Michael,
We name nerds as well as everyday “normal” parents are so indebted to you. I am thankful that you made this information available to the rest of us.

What I Learned in May {2015} | KendraNicole.net Says:

May 26th, 2015 at 7:02 am

[…] The name Michael, which was the most popular boy’s name in the US for nearly forty years, is responsible for inspiring the creation of the Social Security name popularity lists. It all began with Michael Shackleford, an employee at the Social Security Administration Headquarters. In 1997, Shackleford and his wife were expecting their first child, and having grown up with the most popular name of his generation, he was eager to select a more original name for his own baby. To determine the most common names of the time, Shackleford wrote a program that sorted names given to babies as reported annually to the Social Security Administration. . . and the official SSA list of names (dating back to the 1880’s) was born! […]

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